One of those classic things they teach you in economics classes, when reading Adam Smith, is the concept of "specialisation"—the principle that every corporation should identify their comparative advantage and specialise in it.
(Funnily enough, I recently found out that the familiar parable of the pin factory trotted out in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was in all likelihood lifted straight from the pages of Arabic literature on economics... As were many other familiar Enlightenment concepts. So much for academic integrity. ¯\(ツ)/¯ debt)
If specialisation and division of labour in the globalised economy are as natural as the different limbs and organs of our body taking up different tasks, what does this tell us about the former?
If even just a single vital organ fails in our bodies, it means we're toast, unless we can get a suitable transplant in time.
When China shut down because of COVID-19 at the end of 2019, and the virus subsequently spread all over the world, health systems the world over were hit by severe shortages in PPE and other medical equipment, limiting their ability to deal effectively with the growing pandemic—because the world's factory was itself closed for business due to the virus.
When ubiquitous cloud service providers suffer downtime, it is now not just the funny pages on the interwebs hosting cat photos that become inaccessible. While I found myself unable to deploy changes to a company web app during a recent AWS outage (that wasn't even directly hosted by AWS), that was probably the least of our worries. Even activities that we think of as belonging to meatspace are impacted.
I... can't vacuum... because us-east-1 is down.
People around the world literally can't clean their own houses, all because some server farm in far-off North Virginia went down.
Yet we persist in holding to the myth of specialisation, taking the attractive, low sticker prices ("economies of scale") it shows us at face value. We grow more and more dependent on distant monopolies, more and more vulnerable to single points of failure. Attempts at fostering local alternatives that might make us more resilient, meanwhile, get hauled up before the WTO and denounced as "protectionist" and "obstacles to free trade". Free trade! so free that Japan had to be coerced at gun-point to open up its borders for trade to foreigners it couldn't be arsed to deal with. Many ordinary people don't think twice about defending such practices—after all, that's what the experts drilled into us via our schooling. But in the end, who in the world really benefits from these brittle supply chains, these profit machines over-optimised for "normal operating parameters"?
NB this charming footnote from breakdown-of-nationsp. 122
This does not mean that specialization as such is undesirable. On the contrary, the purpose of every community, as indicated in the preceding chapter, is to foster it. But when it begins to obliterate the diversity of man which, at a lesser degree of perfection, it cultivates, its advantage turns into ruin. This happens in the excessive large-scale specialization made possible in large states.
debt Graeber, David. 2014. Debt, Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House. ↩︎ 1
breakdown-of-nations Kohr, Leopold. 1978. The Breakdown of Nations. Dutton. ↩︎ 1